Detonation: Violent Riders

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Detonation: Violent Riders (Japan, 1975)

Detonation: Violent Riders is the first instalment in Toei’s series of bosozoku biker gang films. Formed by youngsters grown tired of traditional Japanese school and societal systems, the bosozoku gangs received notable media attention in the 1970’s as newspapers and magazines cashed in with the phenomena and even took it out of its original frame. Toei was quick to smell easy box office revenue as the bosozoku hysteria provided an opportunity to combine their established cinematic formulas with a current and talked about real life phenomena. Much like with karate films (The Executioner), director Teruo Ishii got assigned to the job despite his lack of interest for the genre.

Bosozoku’s roots date back to the post WWII years when a new societal problem group arised. Having lived under the war time rule and even an assumption of never returning home alive, such as the kamikaze pilots assigned for a mission that never came to be, some of the war veterans could not return to peaceful life without difficulties. The most extreme of these individuals started looking for new excitement by tuning cars and conducting less than desired, gang type activities on city streets. Inspiration and idols were found from foreign movies such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955). This way of thinking later caught the motorcycle obsessed youth and bosozoku was born.

The first 20 minutes of Detonation: Violent Riders is exactly what one would expect from a Teruo Ishii bosozoku film. Black dressed biker men chase on the streets, perform stunts on bikes and bring public outrage. A leather dressed lady provides the men with physical pleasures out in the nature, and the night is spent partying with topless dancers. Disagreements between men are solved by speeding towards cliff blindfolded. Ishii knows how to make quality cinema.

No high art by any means, Ishii directed the Detonation films as a gun for hire. Easily bored with conventional filmmaking, Ishii spend a notable amount his career – and Toei’s money – for his personal cinematic refreshment. The infamous late 60s ero-guro epics (The Joy of Torture, Inferno of Torture etc.) are only the tip of iceberg in the director’s resume. In the Detonation movies Ishii threw in just about any elements he found potentially entertaining. Very describing of the director’s talent is, that even with this philosophy Ishii managed to deliver several technically competent cult classics. Violent Riders, however, is not among his best efforts.

After a strong start it soon becomes obvious that Violent Riders’ biggest problem is the screenplay which, rather than being full of holes, appears to one big hole in itself. Pieces of poorly attached storyline are hanging somewhere on the sides, ready to fall at any moment. If there is an actual plot to be found, it would probably be the romance between the wild hearted mechanic boy Iwaki (Kouichi Iwaki) and the innocent but gang tied Michiko (Tomoko Ai). The newcomer is quick to make enemies while at the same time his old pals are tempting him to re-join the gang and fight the competing group. The execution of this however, far from dynamic and engaging.

Motorcycle money shots are what Ishii handles without difficulties. Close ups, sunset backgrounds and fast scenes on streets are plenty, even if there isn’t much in terms of bike tuning. Worth a mention is also a jaw dropping truck crash escape stunt that does, however, turn out to be a trick shot with closer look. Far less convincing is the climatic gang war that is little more than a messy display of bikers riding in circle and kicking and punching each other on the way. Thankfully the film’s last few minutes mark an improvement and leave a good taste in the viewer’s mouth.

Next to the bikes Violent Rider’s best offering is the cast. Little known outside his native country, rocker / bike maniac (and soon to become television superstar) Koichi Iwaki handles the lead role well. His manners and looks are a perfect for for a character like this. Heavy weigh support is provided by Sonny Chiba whose beard-faced charisma is an instant hit. Regrettably, Chiba’s role is quite small and his action talent has been notably limited. Most other supporting actors are unknown stars and one-timers – real life gang members by a good guess. Toei was never shy of picking up natural talents from the streets… and most of the time the results were pretty good.

Three sequels followed, the first two of them helmed by Ishii. In Detonation! Violent Games (1976) Ishii drew inspiration from West Side Story and even introduced slight musical elements, resulting in the best film in the series. In Season of Violence (1976) Ishii tried to do a modern sun tribe film in the lines of Crazed Fruit and other 50s classics, but the film turned out quite boring and lacked in action. The relatively decent last film, Detonation! 750CC zoku (1976), directed by Yutaka Kohira (Dragon Princess), shifted some of the focus to cars but still managed the best bike chase in the series. All of the films starred Iwaki. Chiba only appeared in the first film.

* Original title: Bakuhatsu! Boso zoku (爆発!暴走族)
* Director: Teruo Ishii
* Chiba’s role: Small Supporting Role
* Film availability: Toei DVD (Japan) (No subs)

Iwaki

Chiba

13 Steps of Maki

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13 Steps of Maki (Japan, 1975)

This is perhaps Etsuko Shihomi’s most enjoyable, and certainly sleaziest, film. Shihomi is a girl gang leader straight out of a comic book, spending half of her time saving her delinquent karate girls from trouble. It’s basically a pinky violence movie with karate action instead of gun and knife fights. Although there is little plot, the film is well paced. Lots of solid action, no irritating supporting characters or comic reliefs, very little in terms boring side plots, and just when you might start getting a bit tired of it they throw Shihomi in prison and the film goes all WIP. Great theme song too! Sonny Chiba has cool cameo as Maki’s brother, and Roman Porno actress Meika Seri appears as assassin in the prison segment. Someone really need to put this film out on DVD and BD immediately.

* Original title: Wakai kizokutachi: 13 kaidan no Maki (若い貴族たち 13階段のマキ)
* Director: Makoto Naito
* Chiba’s role: Cameo
* Film availability: None. Review format: 35mm.

The Defensive Power of Aikido

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The Defensive Power of Aikido (Japan, 1975)

Sonny Chiba left the leading role to his brother Jiro in this excellent, though very loose martial arts biopic of Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba. For entertainment’s sake, the film focuses on Ueshiba’s somewhat reckless early years. Chiba himself shows up in a slightly villainous supporting role as a bodyguard for a no-good gang. He eventually cuts his ties with the gang, but only after accidentally injuring an innocent woman and feeling he must take responsibility about it.

This is one of the best Japanese martial arts films of the 70s, not only for excellent fights, but especially for Koji Takada’s screenplay, which uses themes of honour, brotherhood and conflict similar to old school yakuza films. Jiro Chiba pales in comparison to his brother, but he makes a decent lead and there is genuine spark in the fights between them. Etsuko Shihomi and Masafumi Suzuki appear in the film as well. Add a cool soundtrack by The Street Fighter composer Toshiaki Tsushima and you’ve got a highly recommended film. Interestingly enough, it’s also one of the least exploitative films in the genre, with no sex or nudity at all.

* Original Title: Gekitotsu! Aikido (激突!合気道)
* Director: Shigero Ozawa
* Chiba’s role: Major supporting role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan) (No subs). Review format: 35mm.

Masafumi Suzuki and Jiro Chiba

Chiba

Shihomi

Sonny vs. Jiro

Karate Bearfighter

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Karate Bearfighter (Japan, 1975)

A very enjoyable sequel packs loads of action but almost no plot. Chiba is his usual badly behaving self as Oyama, who seems not have learned anything from the previous film’s events, and all the better for it. When he isn’t working as a yakuza bodyguard, he’s picking up fights at local dojos. He finally gets a grip of himself and travels to Hokkaido, where he befriends a little boy, but his enemies won’t leave him alone. He also agrees to fight a bear for money.

Unlike in the previous film where Chiba battled a real bull, this time we’re treated a remarkably unconvincing man in a bear suit. It’s silly, but at least you don’t have to feel sorry for the poor animal. The rest of the action is fast, fierce and plentiful, but once again slightly hurt by shaky camerawork.

The biggest issue in the otherwise entertaining film is the lack of a plot, which leaves the storyline without a clear aim. The film is lots of fun whenever there is action, but there is also a clear drop in the interest curve whenever the film shifts to a storytelling mode. Chiba’s earlier and more accomplished martial arts biopic Killing Machine wasn’t terribly plot driven either, but featured much better character drama.

* Original Title: Kenka karate gokushin burai ken (けんか空手 極真無頼拳)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Adness DVD (USA), Toei DVD (JP) (no subs)

Screencaps from the Adness DVD:

A little bit more for Karate Bearfighter from the Toei DVD

Original Teaser

Masutatsu Oyama (middle) instructing a fight scene

Karate Bullfighter

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Karate Bullfighter (Japan, 1975)

Sonny Chiba portrays his own master, kyokushin karate founder Masutatsu Oyama, is this excellent karate biopic, which obviously takes some liberties from the facts. The film is a live action adaptation of the Oyama comic books written by Ikki Kajiwara. Apparently master Oyama did not mind being portrayed as a brute and an “accidental” rapist – all of which worked to the film’s benefit.

Chiba is at the top of his game here. He portrays Oyama as a man who attends a karate tournament, beats all opponents, and then throws away the trophy because he thinks sportsman karate is for pussies! The fights are generally excellent and very physical, although they do suffer from some needlessly shaky camerawork (probably influenced by the documentary style yakuza films of the era). Chiba also fights a real bull – something Oyama also did.

Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi was never much of a storyteller, and that’s the film’s biggest flaw. It feels very episodic, making the film sometimes feel longer than it is. There’s a bit of love story, a bit of rivalry with nemesis Masashi Ishibashi, a bit of melodrama as Oyama kills a drunken man and then tried to make it up by taking care of his wife and child, and so on. One can sense the film tried to combine the juiciest parts of its source material without emphasizing coherence too much.

Chiba’s brother Jiro Chiba (who later starred in the excellent The Defensive Power of Aikido, 1975) plays a major supporting role as Oyama’s apprentice. Chiba returned later the same year for an even better sequel Karate Bearfighter.

* Original Title: Kenka karate kyokushin ken (けんか空手 極真拳)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Adness DVD (USA), Toei DVD (JP) (no subs)

I don’t have many screencaps for this, so please forgive me for not doing the film justice.

Sonny and Jiro

Killing Machine

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Killing Machine (Japan, 1975)

Sonny Chiba stars as Doshin So, the founder of Shaolin Karate, in this superb martial arts film set immediately after WWII. It was the first of the many martial arts biopics made in 1975 that brought the genre to a higher level by focusing not only on the violent mayhem, but also on the more philosophical aspect of martial arts. This one was easily one of Chiba’s best directed movies with excellent pacing, strong focus on a well written storyline, and a very good leading performance by Chiba. There may be a few crying orphan child too much, but a bit of melodrama only works to the film’s benefit and there’s a suitably epic feel to the film. The production values are better than in most Chiba films, with limited but entirely functional sets capturing the atmosphere of the mid-1940s Japan. The fight scenes are terrific as well: fast, hard hitting and filmed with steady hands. Highly recommended.

* Original Title: Shorinji kenpo (少林寺拳法)
* Director: Norifumi Suzuki
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Adness DVD (USA), Toei DVD (JP) (no subs)

A little bit more for Killing Machine from the Toei DVD

Great teaser trailer with Chiba practicing in front of Doshin Do

Doshin Do

Photo gallery

The Bullet Train

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The Bullet Train (Japan, 1975)

Toei anticipated Speed (1994) by nearly two decades with this excellent thriller. The film stars Ken Takakura as a criminal who plants a bomb on a bullet train and demands money from the government. If the speed falls below 80km / hour, the train will explode. The police do their best to track down the criminals without giving in to their demands, while the desperate train pilot (Sonny Chiba in a rare 1970s non-action role) is trying to keep his cool. Tension begins to rise among the uninformed passengers as the train skips its designated stops.

Director Junya Sato does fine job helming a character driven thriller, even if there are a couple of silly bits and too many flashbacks. The film’s biggest merit is the well crafted villains, whose acts are understandable though not acceptable. Takakura is very good at making his character human. Action scenes are few, but expertly executed. The ultra-funky 1970s score feels out of place at first, but once you get used to it, you can’t imagine the movie without it. Supporting roles feature a whole variety of stars from Takashi Shimura to Etsuko Shihomi, Yumi Takigawa, and Tetsuro Tamba, sometimes only getting a few seconds of screen time. Chiba has limited screen time, but it’s nice to have him in the film.

Interestingly, 1975 saw the release of not one but two bullet train thrillers. The other was Yasuzo Masumura’s Toho release Dômyaku rettô, in which noisy bullet trains are seen as industrial monsters upsetting peace and tradition. In that film, too, activist/terrorists threaten to destroy a speeding bullet train unless the government gives in to their demands. Suffering from a silly premise and underwhelming climax, Dômyaku rettô was certainly the lesser of the two bullet train films released that year.

* Original Title: Shinkansen daibakuha (新幹線大爆破)
* Director: Junya Sato
* Chiba’s role: Small supporting role
* Film availability: Twilight Time BD (US) (Upcoming), IVL DVD (R3 HK), Subkultur BD (DE) (no Eng subs), Optimum DVD (UK)

The original English dubbed US release was cut down to around 115 minutes, and should be avoided. The uncut version runs 152 minutes (NTSC).

Takakura

Chiba

Shihomi

Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope

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Wolfguy: Enraged Lycanthrope (Japan, 1975)

This is the holy grail of Sonny Chiba madness. Chiba is the last remaining member of a werewolf clan, and a crime reporter who conceals his true identity from the mortals. The film kicks off with a series of ultra-brutal murders, in which members of a rock band have been slaughtered. The culprit appears to be a woman with supernatural powers. Her skills are demonstrated in the opening scene, were one of the rockers (Rikiya Yasuoka) pretty much explodes into pieces.

There is no other Sonny Chiba film as outrageous as this. The film begins as a psychedelic city noir, then transcends into a science fiction film with mysterious research labs, and eventually reaches for mythical tones as Chiba returns to his birth town in the mountains. Some of the scenes unfolding feature a werewolf vs. werewolf karate fight, a werewolf being created surgically by doctors, and Chiba pulling off the prison bars with his bare hands. It’s bloody as hell and comes with copious amounts sex and nudity as well. And let’s not even get started with the odd mother syndrome as Chiba rubs his face against Yayoi Watanabe’s breasts because she reminds him of his mother!

The mad visions spring from Kazumasa Hirai’s ‘Adult Wolfguy’ graphic novels. Hirai also published the similarly titled but more youthful ‘Wolfguy’ manga that Toho had already adapted into a film in 1973. Toho’s enjoyable adaptation was no children’s film either, but Toei brought the sex and violence to a whole new level. The material was expertly adapted into a screenplay by Koji Takada. The relatively high level of continuity Takada manages to bring into the screenplay is quite shocking in fact. The storyline comes a long way, and the process feels. This is a far more coherent display of mayhem than some other Chiba films, where parts of the movie don’t always connect to each other so well.

Director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi does what he’s best at, delivering non-stop mayhem with occasional beautiful images. Most of his other films, such as Sister Street Fighter and Karate Bearfighter, were very enjoyable; none of them however were quite as great as Wolfguy. Yamaguchi’s usual problem, shaky cam, is thankfully nearly absent here, resulting in lots of fun action. Wolfguy isn’t entirely a karate film, but it was made at the height of the karate film boom, which meant there were a lot of hand to hand fights accompanying gunplay and explosions.

Wolfguy is one of those rare cult movies that not only lives up to its outrageous premise, but exceeds it. It was certainly a hit with the audience at the Sonny Chiba festival in Tokyo, where one poor fella became mentally insane after the film! He sat quietly during the film, but burst into an uncontrollable laughter once the film finished and couldn’t stop. His maniac laughter echoed in the theatre staircase for several minutes. The film’s greatness must have been too much for him to handle.

I saw Wolfguy three times that day. Since it was a double feature with Game of Chance, playing all day, I simply decided not to give my seat away after the first go. After the insanely enjoyable second viewing I initially left for Co-ed Report: Yuko’s White Breasts (1971), which was playing on the other side of the town, but that screening turned out to be sold out, so I headed back to Chiba fest for one more go at Wolfguy, and I didn’t regret one bit!

The fact that there is no DVD or even video release anywhere in the world (update: that will soon change) is a crime against humanity!

* Original Title: Wolfguy: Moeru okami otoko (ウルフガイ 燃えろ狼男)
* Director: Kazuhiko Yamaguchi
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Film availability: Arrow DVD / BD (UK/US) (May 2017). Review format: 35mm. Screencaps: TV

Military Spy School

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Military Spy School (Japan, 1974)

Another take on the Nakano Spy School which trained spies during WWII. The students were taught aikido, ninjutsu, weapons, explosives, foreign languages etc. Sonny Chiba already starred in the superb 1968 action/noir Army Intelligence 33, which was based on the same topic. This 1970s version is less successful, despite a big name cast (Chiba, Bunta Sugawara, Isao Natsuyagi etc.). Director Junya Sato adds more realism, but cuts down the action and loses the elegance of the ’68 version. This version is also more focused on the theme than any specific character, hence it doesn’t really have a main character. It’s not a bad movie, but one feel it should’ve been better considering the cast and interesting topic.

* Original title: ルパング島の奇跡 陸軍中野学校 (Lubang tô no kiseki: Rikugun Nakano gakkô)
* Director: Junya Sato
* Chiba’s role: Major Supporting Role
* Film availability: VoD (Japan)

The Bodyguard

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The Bodyguard (Japan, 1974) [TV]

Not to be confused with the unrelated Bodyguard Kiba (aka The Bodyguard) films, this karate packed TV series is an undiscovered gem that features some of Sonny Chiba’s best action. Chiba stars as a member of a private bodyguard company established by Ko Nishimura (the priest from Lady Snowblood), brought to Japan after hammering a roomful of Arab villains to death in Middle East. His colleagues are played by karate girl Etsuko Shihomi, Chiba’s brother Jiro Chiba, young nice guy Yuuki Meguro, and dirty fellow lone wolf Yoji Takagi who occasionally joins the gang.

The series, produced briefly after the release of the first Street Fighter film, is basically combination of martial arts action and traditional Japanese detective series format where we often had a group of 4-5 detectives solving crimes. Although not strictly a martial arts series, for these guys karate is usually the solution to any problem, and the action only gets better and more frequent as the series advances. Most episodes feature at least one fight, but many feature two or three fights.

Chiba is fantastic in the series. The fights ar as good as in his films, and are always clearly filmed without shaky camera. They are little short, though. And while the series may lack the excessive bloodletting and sex of Chiba’s mid 70’s films, the action looks and sounds painful. It also says something about the series’ grittiness that a lot of the time the bodyguards fail to keep their client alive till the end. Adding to the effect is a fantastic, badass score.

The 18 year old Shihomi makes perhaps an even bigger impression than Chiba. She has never looked as cute and energetic as she does here kicking guys in the face. She doesn’t get any fights in the early episodes, but becomes a major attraction later on. It’s pretty difficult to curb your enthusiasm when an episode title that roughly translates as “The Roaring Female Dragon of Hokkaido” appears on screen and a miscellaneous bunch of martial arts villains that look like the cast of Sister Street Fighter (released towards the end of the show’s production) are introduced. Hell yeah!

Jiro Chiba gets his share of action as well, and while Yuuki Meguro is not a fighter he turns out to be a sympathetic young guy in suit. Yoji Takagi isn’t too bad either although it takes a while to warm up to him. Guest stars include Pinky Violence actresses Reiko Ike, Ryoko Ema, Yukie Kagawa, and Yumi Takigawa, Roman Porno starlets Yuri Yamashina and Moeko Ezawa, kick boxing legend Tadashi Sawamura, and of course Chiba & Shihomi’s eternal karate nemesis Masashi Ishibashi.

If there is something negative about the series it the uneven and mostly unremarkable writing. Most storylines are decidedly routine, save for a few stand outs. There are also episodes that try too much with drama at the expense of action (e.g. the closing episode), and one rather unbearable comedic episode. Generally speaking the series is relatively free of comedy, except for some funny dialogue between Nishimura and older lady Izumi Yukimura (the owner of a tiny fashion shop operating in the same premises with the bodyguard office). However, in episode 16 some idiot came up with the idea of switching Yukimura for a hyperactive comedic young woman (the actress is credited as “Beaver”). Thankfully she only causes damage to a couple of episodes.

Despite its flaws, The Bodyguard is one of the seminal karate products of the mid 70s. For a Chiba fan it’s a truly exciting discovery that deserves far wider recognition than it has been getting.

* Original title: The Body-Guard / Za bodigaado (ザ・ボディガード)
* Director: Kazuyoshi Yoshikawa, Hideo Tanaka, Koichi Takemoto, Yasuo Furuhata etc.
* Chiba’s role: Starring role
* Availability: Toei DVD (to be released May 2017) (no subs). Review format: TV.

Chiba and Nishimura

Etsuko Shihomi and Jiro Chiba

Shihomi and Yuuki Meguro

Shihomi kicking arse

Shihomi vs. Masashi Ishibashi

Chiba being his usual mean self

This double-episode was shot in the US

Chiba being mean in Nevada

Jiro Chiba

Yuri Yamashina

Reiko Ike

Tadashi Sawamura

Shihomi!